Is it possible to grow a business, maintain an active artistic career, and help support your community, all at the same time?

That’s the challenge Gabriel Safdie took on when his dad’s sudden death brought him into the family business in 1986. He agreed to leave a vibrant teaching career having chaired the English department at Dawson College to become president and CEO of what was to become Canada’s largest home textile supplier, Safdie & Company, on the condition that he could continue his work in the arts.

“My approach to business was not at all conventional,” he said. “But I did it my way. While I was running the company, I published poetry; I helped turn the Playwrights’ Workshop into a national institution; and I did many other things in music, theatre and photography. My photography grew out of my travels and then my yearly calendars grew out of my photography.  It’s been 12 calendars now – several on Asia, one on Stanstead last year and for 2017 I featured photos I recently took on The Day of the Dead on a trip to Mexico, where I have a home. I could not have done the business if I had not had the fulfilment of doing the other [creative] stuff.”

Running a successful business also gave Safdie, who was born in Jerusalem and moved to Canada with his family at the age of thirteen, the means to dedicate funds and time to projects he really cared about.

“I give money to theatres, $1000 here and there. It’s not big money. I also make donations. I’ve also been able to help several artists along the way, sometimes to get a recording out, to get a book out. Some is institutional, some is personal.”

Safdie’s interest in revitalizing Stanstead began after he met Syrian-born filmmaker Bashar Shbib, who had a restaurant in Stanstead. Shbib showed Safdie the closed Old Border Cinema house, which Safdie soon purchased. “One thing led to another and I ended up with a number of other buildings around there too…”

In the last decade redevelopment of Stanstead as a cultural and artistic landmark has become a passion for Safdie and his wife Eva Juul, who have had a vacation home in the area since the late 1970s. Together they now own one block of the village which runs from the American border to the town square. Their plan to redevelop the area is detailed in a document, Le Coeur de Stanstead. The business plan, happily awaited by everyone involved including local, regional as well as potential federal partners, will be released in the spring.

“But I did it my way. While I was running the company, I published poetry; I helped turn the Playwrights’ Workshop into a national institution; and I did many other things in music, theatre and photography.

Safdie’s unusual leadership in all of his projects has not only satisfied his dreams, but also worked well for the business. During his 28-year leadership stint, the company grew twelve-fold. When he retired in 2014, not only did he pass a successful company on to a groomed successor, but he also received accolades and appreciation from the team he had built.

“I brought my people skills and ability to delegate to the business. While most of my life I remained dedicated to education and the arts, one thing sometimes fed the other. You really must do unto others as you would wish others to do unto you. My employees still call me the ‘humanistic’ boss.”

Although officially retired Safdie continues his association with several organizations he has helped over the years including Taquen’Art Productions which promotes world music and emerging talent. He also continues to write, do photography, as well as critique screenplays and books for friends. In between he finds time to donate and volunteer.

Among his recent projects is an annual creative writing scholarship for a Concordia student, which he created in honour of a wonderful year he spent at the school (1963-64) between his main McGill studies and obtaining a Masters at the University of British Columbia.

“[Concordia] was such an incredible year for me and I had the most influential teachers, like the legendary Sidney Lamb, Neil Compton, Irving Layton and Rachel Wasserman. As a result of my experience there I feel really good about being able to offer this $5,000 scholarship for a student entering their second year. I’m told that that can make a big difference in someone’s life. I’m happy to be able to contribute.”